NAJAF, Iraq, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged a sea of rapturous followers on Saturday to resist all occupiers of Iraq and oppose the United States, but not necessarily with arms.
In his first speech since his homecoming on Wednesday after years of self-imposed exile in Iran, the one-time firebrand burnished his anti-U.S. credentials and urged supporters to give Iraq's new government led by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki a chance.
"We are still fighters," said Sadr, who led two uprisings against the U.S. military after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and has called for an earlier U.S. withdrawal than the agreed deadline of the end of this year.
Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia fought U.S. troops and was blamed for much of the sectarian slaughter that gripped Iraq, called on his followers to chant "No, no to America."
He labelled the United States, Israel and Britain "common enemies," and demanded that the Iraqi government, in which his movement will play a major role, honour a promise to end the U.S. occupation this year, as agreed.
The number of U.S. troops fell to below 50,000 since the United States limited its role to one of advising and assisting the Iraqi authorities on Aug. 31.
Tens of thousands of people from across Iraq, standing for hours outside his house in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf and carrying Iraqi flags and pictures of the black-turbaned cleric, enthusiastically greeted him
Sadr's return to Iraq has jolted the country as it prepares for the full U.S. withdrawal at the end of the year, seeking to use its vast oil wealth to rebuild after the years of sectarian warfare and the decades of economic stagnation under Saddam Hussein that preceded the invasion.
Some minority Sunnis are apprehensive of a revival in Sadr's militia, but most Iraqis appear to hope Sadr's return at this juncture will help solidify Iraq's fragile stability as overall violence falls, despite continuing attacks by insurgents.
Sadr said occupiers should be resisted "by all means" but added that arms were for "people of weapons only", a comment that seemed to endorse the authority of the army and the police and could calm fears of a return of the Mehdi Army.
The cleric, who fled Iraq in 2006 or 2007 after an arrest warrant was issued for him, told his supporters that they may carry out an act of resistance by opposing occupiers "in our hearts."
'SHAKE THE GROUND'
His message energised his followers.
"We will shake the ground under the Americans, if they will not withdraw," Aqeel Faisal, a 40-year-old shopkeeper from the southern city of Basra, said in Najaf.
"We will also shake the ground under the government, if it fails to deliver its pledges to serve the Iraqi people," said Faisal, who came to get a glimpse of Sadr and hear his words.
The enigmatic Sadr, who addressed his supporters in front of a big poster of his father, the revered Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, started his speech with a poem mourning the slaying of Imam Hussein, a central figure of Shi'ite Islam.
Sadr has sought to shed the image of a rabble-rouser and appear a religious mentor and statesman as his movement assumes a new, powerful role in Baghdad's coalition government.
"Open the way before the new government to prove that it is for serving the people," he told the crowd in Najaf, where many had slept in the street outside his house for days.
The support of the Sadrists political movement, thought to have been brokered at least in part by Iran, was crucial in securing a second term for Maliki and ending a 9-month deadlock over the formation of a government.
The Sadrist movement has toned down its religious rhetoric, and cast itself as less sectarian. It focused on public services in last year's election, and grabbed 39 seats in Iraq's 325-seat parliament and seven ministries in the new government.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.